I’m about to put all my lefty credentials at serious risk. If people read only the first few paragraphs of this article I’ll be drummed out of the tree-huggers, yoghurt-knitters and snowflake breeders union before you can say “Corduroy jacket with leather elbow patches”! And that’s fine – because there are no yoghurt-knitters in my world, no snowflakes and no 1970s social workers with leather elbow patches either. There are a few tree-huggers but that’s OK – that’s actually a good thing.
My world is populated by people who know the hardships of the real world, who are strong enough to cope with them and who still find the energy and resources they need to stand up for their neighbours. We’re the working class, we’re not the stereotypical snowflakes, constantly offended by every little disagreement, that’s much more characteristic of the far right. They get hot under their sweaty little collars whenever anyone says a compassionate word or suggests that the welfare state might be worth protecting. Neither are we sad little loners sitting at our computers in our parents’ box-rooms wishing we had some friends. That’s more characteristic of the disaffected far right, too. Fucking snowflakes!
We, on the other hand, tend to be realists. Mostly working class, we come from generations of hardship and we know what it means to struggle. We don’t seek simple answers and we’re not interested in blaming the brown-skinned easy target next door just because they’re accessible. We go after the real issues and the real enemies of our society and our class. And, even in the face of defeat on a massive scale as we saw last Thursday we remain relentless.
And we understand something fundamental… (here’s the bit that just might get me evicted from the offence-takers’ circle). We understand that inequality is inevitable, even desirable. But not for the reasons Boris Johnson had in mind when he sang the praises of inequality a couple of weeks before the general election.
Please my fellow lefties – read on before you condemn your fellow socialist. You won’t be nearly so alarmed at my words if you do. Not only that, you may find that this argument will actually persuade some of your tory acquaintances to think again too.
Firstly, we know that even if we treated everyone the same with absolute equality of opportunity, outcomes would differ because people differ. We differ in intellectual ability, in temperament, in physical potential and in personality. All else being equal, the strong, determined industrious and intelligent woman will do better than the weak-willed, lazy and indolent young man who lazes his days away in the pub or on the street corner. She’ll also do better in the equally hard working but less intelligent school-leaver who lacks both her brains and her contacts. See we work only on equality of opportunity. You don’t need to be lazy to be disadvantaged in our unequal world, even with equality of opportunity, if you’re not in a position to compete with the strongest, the brightest, even the most attractive.
So what would be the solution in an ideal world? Follow the argument to its logical conclusion and it’s obvious. In an ideal world we’d all have equal abilities. But think about that. That’d mean we’d all be exactly the same. We’d all think the same thoughts, live the same lives and enjoy the same recreations. We’d all be clones and all hope of creativity would fly out the window along with the winged pigs necessary to bring such a world about. We can’t have equality of opportunity because we can’t have equality of inate ability and that really is a good thing.
So what can we have?
Well – we can have equality of facility. We can compensate for disadvantages without having to worry about unequal ability so long as we have decent outcomes. We can have lifts in underground stations for wheelchair users. We can have hearing loop systems in public spaces for hearing aid users. We can have systems in place to ensure that the inequality we see around us doesn’t prevent people from achieving to the best of their ability. There will still be inequality but nobody will be left so far behind because of it that they can’t afford to eat.
And it’s not just about hearing aids and elevators. If we must charge for higher education we could ensure that those from poorer backgrounds get extra help with accommodation fees and general living expenses on campus. If we’re really going to keep VAT on food we can provide an additional weekly top up for those who don’t benefit from reduced income tax equivalent to the VAT paid on an average week’s shopping. After all, VAT is paid at the same rate whether you’re on top rate income tax or too poor to pay any income tax in the first place. That’s no different in principle from providing a lift in the tube or a hearing loop in your local community centre. It’s compensating for inequality without pretending it doesn’t exist.
You see, Boris is right – we do need inequality – but not because it stimulates envy and greed as he would prefer. We need inequality because the only way to do without it is to do without diversity and creativity.
But once we’ve acknowledged that we can’t have equality of ability we can compensate to protect all people from the worst excesses of inequality of outcome.
John Rawls famously asked people to design a social structure for a society that exists behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. It was a hypothetical society in which they could be either the most able, the least able or at any point in between. They could have the most opportunity or the least opportunity. They could be anyone but, as the thought experiment goes, they would be someone. Everyone who participated had to imagine themselves born somewhere into the social structure of the world behind the veil. And a remarkable thing happened.
When people didn’t know their own place in life they became fairer – not because there was no inequality, but because they couldn’t see it clearly.
We all know, even the stinking rich know that this unequal society is unfair. We all know that dog eat dog provides almost nobody with a truly satisfying meal. A society where so many suffer has disadvantages for all. An underfunded education creates a society full of under-educated people – people who vote and people who become so unemployable they need to steal to eat.
An under-funded healthcare system leads to ill health and epidemics. Under-funded police and fire services leave us all at risk – especially those with most to lose. In an unequal society everyone loses.
And, as the veil of ignorance demonstrates, we all understand just how unfair the present system is – that’s why nobody supports the sort of society we see today in UK when they’re planning the land behind the veil. Inequality of ability isn’t the problem. The pretence that somehow everyone can achieve the same outcomes with vastly different starting positions is the problem.
It’s not fair to raise VAT and say that means everyone pays the same tax when some people have so little they can’t afford to eat as a result.
It’s not fair to reduce income tax ‘for everyone’ when some people don’t even earn enough to meet the income tax threshold to begin with.
It’s not fair to say that everyone can go to the best universities when most people could never afford the cost of living or even the rent in our centres of educational excellence.
It’s not fair to pretend that everyone can be what they want when professional ladders begin with extended unpaid internships that bar everyone but the wealthiest from getting a foothold in the first place.
Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill gave us utilitarianism – a philosophical system begun by Bentham and refined by Mill that advocates for seeking the greatest good for the greatest number. That’s usually what happens in the land behind the veil. People plan fairly.
In our world, in modern UK we seem to be content to provide the greatest good for the smallest number whilst a third of British children remain undernourished and living in poverty.
We can do without that sort of inequality, Boris.